Remember bookstores? Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s I used to browse in small indie bookstores and pick up quirky but provocative books, some of which are still on my shelves. Yesterday, moved by an obscure impulse, I pulled out Inner Visions, a 1979 paperback by Nevill Drury. I’m pretty sure I bought it because of the chapter on the Tarot.
I don’t remember a word of what’s in the book, and it’s not clear I’m going to sit down and read it this month. What prompted me to mention it was the misguided optimism in the Introduction. When Drury was writing this book, the term “counter-culture” could still be used, and with a straight face. Experiments with psychedelic drugs were taken seriously by intelligent people. In the Introduction, he mentions the album covers of Roger Dean, notes “the relationship of the fantasy art on record sleeves to the electronic inner-space music which it often represents,” and suggests that “these forms of modern music represent one facet of the contemporary reaction against scientism and the search for what [Theodore] Roszak has termed the visionary sources of our culture.”
The question I’m asking myself is, what happened? How did a cultural movement that seemed to promise a change for the better get so thoroughly derailed? Why, today, do we roll our eyes and cringe with embarrassment when we encounter Drury’s enthusiasm for magical consciousness and “a truly open-ended cosmology”?
What happened, for starters, was punk and hip-hop. The optimistic, visionary music of the late ’60s and early ’70s was supplanted in pop culture by music that celebrated violence, nihilism, and thuggery. Not being a conspiracy nut, I’m not going to suggest that this was a conscious decision on the part of any shadow-shrouded cabal within the record industry. More realistically, the decision-makers favored music that was simple and had a direct, visceral impact, because that was easier for them to sell. Punk and hip-hop are, in other words, the creatures of capitalism.
Pop music is only a tiny slice of the big picture, though it’s something of a canary in the coal mine. The Baby Boom generation was getting older, raising families and dealing with a lot of mundane responsibilities that had concerned few of us ten years before.
And then we were smacked upside the head with the personal computer. This new gadget was captivating in its seemingly limitless capabilities. Instead of sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading Tarot cards and passing around a joint, suddenly we were all glued to a glowing screen, hunched over and staring at it, fascinated. And that was before the Internet. Today you can be endlessly amused or distracted by stuff that’s out there in the cloud. Who has time to look within?
Yes, there are still remnants of what used to be called the counter-culture. Community gardens, health food stores, Burning Man, even Occupy. (We haven’t heard much lately from Occupy, have we?) On the other side, we have drones, an endless “war on terror” (George Orwell would have been madly envious of that phrase!), tar sands, leaking Japanese reactors, and a gun-loving culture that accepts lethal violence as normal.
As Joni Mitchell said, “We are star-crossed, we are golden, caught in the Devil’s bargain…” (Actually, the lyric seems to have been “stardust,” not “star-crossed,” but I think my version is better.)